If I may quote HMQ speaking on British TV in November 1992, for me and for many others I’m sure, 2016 was an Annus Horribilis, a horrible arse of a year.
Returning to Banff in early February to continue to try to put into practice some of the skiing skills I had been shown in January but not reinforced, I fell heavily and dislocated my shoulder (see). Visit to hospital, no more skiing, so I opted for the early bath and flew home after only a week. (see)
On the flight home I picked up a virus infection which laid me low.
A visit to the doctor to sign an insurance claim form to recover the considerable medical and travel expenses incurred by the injury led to tests because I visited so infrequently. When the results came back I was shipped straight to the Emergency Assessment Unit in the local hospital because I was misfiring on two cylinders, a side-effect of the virus infection.
The diagnosis was confirmed and medication prescribed. An echocardiogram scan was recommended but there seemed to be no urgency as I heard nothing about an appointment.
So, after clearing it with the doctor, in April I went to the Greek island of Symi for the summer. Operating well below par I tried to build up stamina with daily walks. Until things went badly wrong.
Deciding that I was so below form that I should return home, I booked a flight and walked down to the harbour to book my ferry ticket. It was a 15 minute walk which took 6 days.
Whisked off to Rhodes hospital by the Hellenic Coastguard, what the much vaunted NHS had failed to treat in the UK was dealt with very efficiently and expeditiously by the Greek health service. I was electrocuted, checked, tested and discharged. Once again firing on all four cylinders, back on Symi I went wild, took to the mountains, slower than usual but considerably more comfortable than for the couple of months previously.
Months of more scans and tests in the UK, an increase in medication, and it all got more complicated. The side effect of one of the drugs can be internal haemorrhaging so when signs appeared in the pan it was back to the surgery then off to hospital to swallow a camera to check for the Big C. Side effect of the other drugs can be damage to the kidneys. More tests showed that for the first time in my life I had anaemia, so more tests for that.
This is just a quick skate through the trials of the first 10 months of the year.
There were also many sadnesses including the death of a good friend on Symi, and concerns about the health of family and friends.
It all changed the shape of the year completely. Became a paranoia, almost an anger wrought of frustration.
The planned trip to Banff for Christmas skiing with my daughter and her husband was a beacon on the horizon, an end to the hassle.
Didn’t quite work out.
Flight delays meant we arrived on 18th December rather than 17th after a lot of stress caused by British Airways inaction and an enforced overnight stay in Slough. Frustrating and disappointing, late-night shopping required for essential items because we didn’t have our hold luggage, not eating until nearly midnight. But unlike Christian in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, we weren’t yet in the Slough of Despond. We had our skiing gear in cabin luggage. Result! The day after we arrived we were out on the ski hill in fresh and falling snow. Great!!!
However, sadly, there was more shopping in Banff because three of our five bags didn’t arrive until 21st. More essential items needed. Receipts carefully kept ready to make a claim from the airlines for additional costs.
When the bags came it was like Christmas as we were reunited with our stuff. Four days later we had a great Christmas Day, skiing followed by Skype to the family and a meal in the hotel. Really good.
Then the hotel caught fire.
A relatively early night, ready for an early start to the ski hill next day, just after 2 am came a thunderous banging on the doors along the corridor. Thinking at first it was youngsters up from Calgary returning to their rooms after partying in the Dancing Sasquatch, at first I ignored it. But when it continued, became more urgent, I opened the door to an RCMP officer saying that the roof was on fire and to evacuate immediately. We were on the top floor. There was a smell of smoke. RCMP officers, who had spotted the fire from the main street, banging on doors further along the corridor were in a billowing haze.
Don’t mess with this stuff. Get out. I grabbed trousers, shirt, sweater, ski jacket, boots …. and opened the door to my daughter’s hammering, afraid I was sleeping though the rumpus. I have slept through much louder disturbance so a justified concern.
It was right that we got out straight away, ours were 2 of the 10 rooms completely destroyed., the fire raging out of sight in a roof-space directly over our heads. Had the RCMP not spotted the fire and taken immediate action it is likely all three of us would be dead from the smoke.
We evacuated into the car park at below minus 200C. Some ran out in night attire and bare feet. One elderly lady refusing to leave, not wanting to be told what to do, was pushed into a wheel chair and carried down the stairs protesting.
No-one was hurt. Inconvenient. Uncomfortable. But all 297 guests were evacuated safely and accounted for.
The strange thing is that the brain processes these things in relation to what has happened in the past. Sure, I grabbed clothes knowing it was very cold outside but still couldn’t think beyond this being a false alarm. Years as a Health and Safety officer with regular fire practices meant I knew there were no practises at 2 in the morning. But I also knew that there were occasional false alarms with someone’s elbow landing in the wrong place. And Christmas/New Year in Banff is party time with merry inebriates thinking all sorts of nonsense is funny, including setting fire to waste bins and punching fire alarms.
The unquestioned but false assumption was therefore that after an hour or so out in the cold we would all be filing back inside with the perpetrators identified from the alarm point triggered.
On this occasion not so. From the car park at the back the flames and plume of smoke could be seen clearly and were growing. This was for real. A fire engine arrived, then another. Firemen set up hoses and got up onto the roof.
That’s when it started to sink in. The past is not always a guide to the present. Why didn’t I grab my passport? And my cards and money? And my phone? And my computer? I couldn’t go back now. The flames were getting huge, licking hungrily 20 feet into the night sky, feeding on the wood and other flammable materials. The firemen up on the roof pumping hundreds of gallons of water. We didn’t know at the time but they also removed six 100 pound propane cylinders which had they been compromised would have made things far worse. The flames were doused but the smoke billowed more.
I lost everything. All I had was what I stood up in plus my reading glasses which for some reason I picked up subconsciously as I left. I had a shirt, a sweater, a pair of pants, pair of trousers, socks, boots … and a ski jacket. And my ski season pass attached to my jacket. That was it. Nothing else. We had had our stuff for a week before it was destroyed.
It’s a strange feeling suddenly having nothing. It numbs the mind which races to try to catch up with the new circumstances. Tries to work out what has to be done. Your brain tells you there are millions of others in the world to whom this is happening, made destitute by violence or natural disasters, but being from the privileged world, this doesn’t sink in.
We were evacuated to a temporary emergency centre in the sister hotel to the one we had been staying in. We dozed leaning on tables in the restaurant. That was when we had the first inkling of the generosity of the community in Banff. A friend who worked in the hotel due on shift at 06.00 came and searched us out and took us back to her house to spend the rest of the night more comfortably and then fed us breakfast.
Brewster’s, the hotel company, went over and above to provide help and support at a personal level from the president right through to off-duty employees coming in to help out even though they knew that with no hotel they may have no job. Shops, restaurants, bars in the town all offered big discounts as we sought to replace necessary items and went to eat. There was a very real sense that this is a small community which cares and offers practical help.
The days which followed we spent trying to prioritise replacement of essentials. First was to replace medication. I had already had to visit the pharmacy because other than the medication I needed for the trip and the next day everything had been in the misplaced hold luggage. Now I had to visit a doctor to get a prescription for the rest of the stay. You pay for medical care in Canada. The fee for issuing the prescription was reduced by more than 50%.
It has been, and to a diminishing extent still is, a traumatic time but the trauma has been offset by the overwhelming sense of generosity of the community.
I was leaving a shop after buying another bit of ski gear (I lost the lot, except skis stored in an outside locker) when I accidentally bumped into a guy coming in. I apologised. He said “Why are you apologising? Only Canadians do that”. I replied “I guess I’ve been coming over here long enough to have picked up the politeness”. He said “We call it the Canadian stand-off: After you!, No, no, after you”.
At the end of the day (I do love clichés) what we have lost is just ‘stuff’. No-one was hurt. What we have gained are a glimmer of understanding of what it is to have everything stripped away in an instant and life-long friendships. For us it’s a First World problem.
It will be difficult to recover from the trauma but it will fade. What will remain will be the memory of the generosity of the people of Banff.
Many articles about the fire on the internet, including this one from the local newspaper The Crag and Canyon